News: The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra reaches for lasting artistic and financial stability

The ASO is working to raise the size of the orchestra back to 88 musicians.
The ASO is working to raise the size of the orchestra back to 88 musicians.
A primary goal is to return the orchestra to 88 members. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)
A primary goal is to return the orchestra to 88 members. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

What a difference nine months and a four-year contract can make.

This time last year, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) was on a collision course with ASO management and the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC) executive committee, a labor dispute that resulted in the second musicians’ lockout in as many years. 

Today, the ASO is showing signs of financial health not seen in more than a decade, a condition which musicians and management agree bodes well for restoring the musical standards that had previously elevated the orchestra to critical acclaim, international prominence and a seemingly endless string of Grammy Awards.

In July, the WAC announced the ASO had closed out the abbreviated 2014-15 concert season with a six-figure budget surplus, the first positive ledger report in 11 years. Additionally, the WAC has kicked off a fundraising effort that so far has raised $14.3 million for the Musicians’ Endowment Campaign. 

Neal has guided the ASO towards financial stability.
Neal has guided the ASO towards financial stability.

A dedicated campaign group led by Robert Spano and (ASO board member) John White is charged with organizing and managing endowment-related activities.

“We are very pleased that we have been able to achieve this goal,” said Terry Neal, the ASO’s interim CEO and president. “The improvement in our finances is gratifying, but more work remains to be done to achieve long-term financial stability while assuring the highest levels of symphonic music.”

The Musicians’ Endowment Fund is the linchpin of the ASO’s new four-year collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which was reached in November, as it serves to fund the hiring of additional orchestra members. 

The $14.3 million figure, which puts the Musicians’ Endowment more than halfway toward its goal of $25 million, includes a $7.7 million challenge grant from the Woodruff Foundation plus five “leadership gifts” of $1 million or more donated by Sally and Carl Gable, the Katz Foundation, the Kendeda Fund, Connie and Merrell Calhoun and an anonymous contributor.

The latest gift, from Lucy R. and Gary Lee, Jr., paired with a matching gift from the Woodruff Foundation, boosted the fund by $1 million. The donation will fund the Lucy R. and Gary Lee, Jr. Associate Principal Bass Chair in the orchestra, which is currently held by Gloria Jones. 

“It’s something we haven’t had for some time, a financial foundation to energize and give credibility to this institution,” said Daniel Laufer, associate principal cellist of the ASO and president of the Players Association (ASOPA).

Daniel Laufer
Daniel Laufer

“Of course, the way we got here was not an easy path, and the musicians took a big hit,” Laufer said. “I don’t think anyone thinks going through two lockouts was the best way to get to this point.”

In 2012, a brief lockout was resolved when ASO musicians accepted both a wage cut and a reduction in the size of the orchestra from 95 to 88 players. 

Two years later, management demanded further compensation cuts, reductions in the number of musicians and other concessions. While wage and benefit issues were destined to be resolved, the musicians’ steadfast refusal to accept terms that diminished the size of the orchestra prompted then-ASO president and CEO Stanley Romanstein to institute a lockout, which started September 7. 

“I think [the ASO management] was surprised we felt so strongly about protecting the complement for the sake of the integrity of the orchestra,” Laufer said, “that it was more important than anything we might have gained from a personal standpoint.”

Nine weeks of negotiations were punctuated by the cancelation of the first eight concerts of the season, the resignation of Romanstein and at least one ASO board member, public outcry via social media and the introduction of federal mediation. 

The saga came to an end November 7 when the ASOPA voted to accept an agreement that stipulated a six percent pay raise for musicians over four years and an increase in premiums for a slightly better health insurance plan. 

During the lockout, the number of full-time ASO players dwindled to 77. Some musicians took positions with other orchestras to escape the unsettled situation, but that number also includes departures due to retirements and reasons not directly attributable to the lockout. The contract that was approved included a provision to bring the complement of musicians back up to 88.

Paul Murphy
Paul Murphy

“The most critical issue now is to rebuild the orchestra,” said Laufer. “We can’t operate with eight violas and eight cellos for an extended time. It’s going to burn out the players and we can’t compete, sound-wise, with an orchestra that has three or four more wind and brass players.”

Paul Murphy, the ASO’s associate principal violist and immediate past president of the ASOPA, said it was a challenge last year to perform with a smaller orchestra that was supplemented with fill-in players. 

“We’re bruised, and for a good bit of time this winter and spring we were performing triage on stage,” Murphy said. “Our numbers were down to begin with, plus several musicians were out playing with other orchestras they had contracted with during the lockout, and those commitments had to be honored.”

From the management side of the equation comes a sense of gratefulness that a corner has been turned, combined with an eagerness to move ahead in support of the quest for a bigger, better Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

“I would like to think there was a better path to get us to where we are today, but I also think we would have landed back in the exact same spot,” said Neal, the retired Coca-Cola executive who was brought in to replace Romanstein during the 2014 lockout. While a search for a permanent replacement continues, Neal remains in charge of operations.

“We are all now focused on what we have to do to fulfill the collective bargaining agreement,” Neal said. “First and foremost, that means we are contractually obligated and ethically motivated to fund 11 musicians in perpetuity, which will get us back to 88.”

Spano helps oversee the Musicians Endowment Campaign.
Spano helps oversee the Musicians’ Endowment Campaign.

The ASO has also deployed a new strategic marketing plan, which targets key audience sectors, that has already paid dividends. “Compared to last year, right now, we have already hit our annual subscription renewals for our classical series,” Neal said. 

As a general rule for large orchestras, including the ASO, just 30 to 40 percent of revenues comes from ticket sales while 60 to 70 percent comes from donor contributions. “If we were to fill Symphony Hall every night, we would not generate enough revenue to support the orchestra,” said Neal. “That’s nothing new; it’s been that way since the days of Beethoven and Bach.”

Unlike the ASO, some orchestras derive support in one amount or another from public funding.

From an operational standpoint, Neal has instituted changes in personnel and internal systems to address performance gaps and inefficiencies. He recently consolidated all programming under Evans Mirageas, vice president of artistic planning, who will be working closely with music director Robert Spano. He and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles are marking their 15th year as artistic partners.

In March, Kristen Delaney was named vice president of marketing and communications. Delaney brings considerable experience in arts marketing to her position, including stints with the Fox Theater as well as the High Museum and Woodruff Arts Center. “We also have some new tools to help us better analyze the market and conduct market research,” Neal said. 

The upcoming season will honor Robert Shaw, who brought the ASO to international prominence.
The upcoming season will honor Robert Shaw, who brought the ASO to international prominence.

Improvements to the ASO website, which Neal said everyone recognizes is inadequate, are coming. There will also be street banners, as well as MARTA buses wrapped with ASO advertising. Special activities and amenities for ASO patrons before and after performances are under consideration. “It’s all part of making the ASO relevant and part of the public conversation,” said Neal.

To that end, ASO has also made moves to become more accessible and inviting to the public. Ten Pops concerts (six under the baton of Michael Krajewski) are on the calendar including “Classical Mystery Tour — A Tribute to the Beatles,” “Star Wars and More: The Best of John Williams,” “Tapestry: The Carole King Songbook” featuring Liz Callaway and a series of holiday-themed performances. Specially priced one-hour “Casual Friday” concerts in Symphony Hall are back.

The orchestra also is ramping up community outreach. The ASO will travel to the University of Georgia (four concerts), Kennesaw State University (four concerts) and Reinhardt University (two concerts) where master classes and additional activities will be offered. In addition, the orchestra has scheduled approximately 60 free community performances of both full orchestral and chamber groups throughout metro Atlanta at locations that include libraries, churches, senior centers, bookstores and parks.

“We can’t be successful without better community linkage and participation,” said Neal.

The 2015-16 classical season is dedicated to the memory of Robert Shaw, who served as music director and conductor of the ASO for more than two decades. From 1967 to 1988, Shaw oversaw the ascendancy of the ASO and the ASO Chorus and Chamber Chorus; both garnered widespread critical acclaim and popularity around the globe.

“Robert Shaw hired me shortly before he retired,” said Murphy. “I’m thrilled to be performing Brahms’ Requiem this season, one of the pieces that was closest to his heart, in Atlanta and also at Carnegie Hall on Shaw’s birthday [April 30, 2016].”

Sustaining a vulnerable artistic enterprise like a major symphony orchestra requires a high degree of trust among all constituents. Having squandered a significant amount of trust in the last few years, the artists and administrators of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra are hoping the darkest days are behind them and that recent indicators are the bellwether of a successful future.

Laufer and Murphy agree that Neal has done an exceptionally good job, especially considering the position he was asked to fill. “Naturally, there was an initial wait-and-see attitude, but I think everyone now sees that he’s passionate about the orchestra and his heart is in the right place,” Laufer said.

“I was really concerned this time around, but now it looks like we’re going in the right direction and I’m optimistic,” he said. “I just want to make sure that it continues. It can’t just be just for now. This has to be a sea change.”

(ArtsATL music writer Mark Gresham contributed to this report.)

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